Someone recently told me, “One of the things I loved the most about your book was stepping into your story and coming to the end with a feeling of peace and happiness despite the unhappy ending. It gave me encouragement without a false sense of hope. I was encouraged that even if things don’t turn out good, life can still be good.”
Even though I wrote the book, it was a good reminder to me that my happiness isn’t based on my circumstances. Funny how some lessons don’t ever seem to take a permanent hold in our thoughts, but we have to keep preaching them to ourselves – reminding ourselves about the truth of the gospel and the sovereignty of God.
I remember when we brought my oldest son, Justin, home from the hospital after he suffered severe brain damage following open-heart-surgery. He was a dramatically different child from the happy, carefree, energetic five-year-old little boy who went into the hospital several months earlier. My red-headed fireball of energy, who was always willing to help with his younger brothers was no longer able to walk or talk or eat or even hold his head upright without assistance.
I felt as though my whole world had come crashing down around me and all joy had been swallowed up in deep darkness. But in the midst of my pain, I clung to the hope that someday he would recover. I imagined a day when my children were all happy and well and I could once more delight in the everyday joys of being a wife and mother – a day when life would once more return to normal and Justin’s physical suffering as well as the emotional anguish I was suffering faded into distant memory. My heart hoped for a happy ending that would relieve my suffering by removing it.
Isn’t happiness and joy the opposite of suffering? Or is it?
Suffering is defined as physical or psychological pain and distress, or an experience that is painful or distressing. At some point in our lives, we all walk through difficult trials, we all must grieve some loss in our life – either the loss of a loved one or the loss of a dream or the loss of material possessions; we struggle with difficult jobs, difficult people, or a difficult season in life. Suffering can look very different for every individual but the truth is – we all suffer.
We all suffer and I think we all cling to the hope that someday our suffering will end. But what does it look on the other side of suffering? How do we envision our happy ending? Most of us have a preconceived idea of what will make us happy and fulfill all our longings. We think we know what will bring us great pleasure – what will satisfy and fill the void in our hearts. We think our ‘happy ending’ will come when we’re finally healthy or when a loved one is completely well. We think happiness will come when we finally attain something that we’ve coveted or achieve some status for which we’ve longed, or enter a new season in life such as marriage or motherhood. But when our happiness is anchored in temporal things, then when we lose those things or never obtain them, we suffer.
Of course there are certainly some very real hurts in this life – the loss of life and loved ones and dreams and reputation and self-esteem, and there are struggles with relationships, circumstances, and finances – and I would not downplay the suffering in anyone’s life, but I think part of our suffering is a misconception of happiness. That misconception – that warped idea of what happiness really is – leaves us discontent and unsatisfied.
And while we are chasing things that we think will bring us pleasure, I think our hearts are really longing for something more. I think there is something inherent within our nature that knows we were created for something more and that longing – C.S. Lewis calls it an inconsolable longing – has us hoping for a ‘happy ending’ somewhere in the future ‘just over the rainbow’, and we hang our hopes for happiness on future events and things that we think will ease our suffering and fulfill our longings.
But while our conception of happiness may be warped, our desires for something better are probably not too high but rather too low. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory” C.S. Lewis says, “it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” I think that longing within our hearts is intended to draw us into the arms of God, so there is an element of discontentment that we need in order to seek something better, but that something better is not found in earthly relationships, material goods, a new status or season in life, or a change in our circumstances, it is found in the arms of a Savior. We are unhappy and suffering not because our standards are too high or unrealistic, but they are too low and real happiness is beyond our comprehension and experience.
We hope for a better tomorrow; we hope for a happy ending, but hope is a ‘maybe’ word. Faith, however, is trusting in a sure thing. And yet, hope and faith go together – “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. I love what Matthew Henry had to say in his commentary on this verse. “Faith and hope go together; and the same things that are the object of our hope are the object of our faith. It is a firm persuasion that God will perform all that he has promised to us in Christ; and this persuasion is so strong that it gives the soul a kind of possession and present fruition of those things…:so that believers in the exercise of faith are filled with ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory.’
Faith really believes that God is good, that He loves us, that He is completely sovereign, and that He really does work all things together for good to those who love God. (Romans 8:28) Faith trusts that He loves us more than we love ourselves. Faith is raising our standards higher and looking beyond those things that we think will make us happy and trusting in a God who is the full substance of all we need or want – He is all we need and all we really want.
If He is the object of our faith, then He is the substance of our hope. And suddenly we rejoice when we see that all our hopes are fulfilled in Him. He is the source of our joy and we can praise Him for all things – all circumstances, all relationships, all things that are ours or not ours – because all things are a reflection of His goodness and grace.
But we don’t often exchange our hope for faith overnight or with the sheer force of our will; sanctification – even just believing – seems to be a long, slow process and a daily surrender fed by devotion to prayer and God’s word. And in my life it has most often been suffering that has finally forced me to surrender my imperfect and feeble hopes and brought me to my knees in prayer; it has been suffering that has fed my desire for the word and raised my affections to rest on a God who is holy and just and good and worthy of my praise. And when my affections rest on Him and my heart begins to praise Him for all things, He exchanges my imperfect praise and affection for peace and joy. When I hope for a happy ending, I am putting my hope in an uncertain tomorrow, but when I surrender all my hopes for faith in a sovereign Savior, he becomes both the source and substance of my joy – today and tomorrow and for ever after.
The day when Justin fully recovered from his brain injury never came in his lifetime, but in my journey with him and all the roads that I have traveled since, I have found true joy and the real source of my ‘happily ever after’ does not rely on my circumstances, material possessions, or even earthly relationships.
And even today, this week, this month, and this new season as I travel difficult paths where hope and joy often seem to be shrouded with discouragement, my heart sings again as I preach to myself and am reminded that my joy is not reliant upon some ‘happy ending’ that relieves the difficulties in present circumstances, but my joy is in a Savior who is the substance of my hope and my ‘happily ever after.’